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Margrete Slettebø – a Dance of Honesty

Imagine that you are in flames, burning from the soles of your feet and upwards. Gradually your body turns into ash. You are now, with your ash body, walking on razor blades. You must tread ever so carefully. A breath of wind may carry a part of you away. A dance instructor keeps giving new directions for me to move. I try to follow, not knowing what it is supposed to look- or feel like. Walk with small steps, as your body is now becoming an empty vessel, lingering between life and death. You do not think anymore, you just feel. You no longer exist as you once did. How do you relate to others in this state? You can no longer see things with your human eyes. Now, how do you see? What do you see?

This is a glimpse of my strange- and somewhat grotesque first meeting with the art of butoh, in a hall in the mountain village in Dharamsala, India in 2011. By accident, I had found Butoh in India, but originally it stems from Japan– more specifically from Japanese dance theatre. However, butoh as an avant-garde performance art also has its connection to Europe, especially the traditions of German expressionism, surrealism and existentialist theatre of the Absurd. It encompasses a range of techniques, activities and motivations, and common features often include the use of imagery with unimaginable combinations of words and concepts to inspire body movements. This serves to experience a non-objectification of the body. It is often performed with hyper-controlled movements that, to an audience, may seem almost meditative.

In 2011, I did not yet did understand the point of each butoh exercise that we did during the workshops, but I could sense that the movements we created with our bodies came from a deep place of honest surprise and intensity. Never before had I experienced such  deep self-exploration in a dance class. One reason for this may be the focus on what is understood as the butoh-body, meaning a physical and mental attitude so as to integrate the dichotomized elements such as subject and object, consciousness and unconsciousness. This notion is what particularly inspired me to connect  butoh to my work within the academic discipline of Peace Studies.

It has not been my intention to instrumentalise butoh as a tool for conflict transformation, peace work or therapy as such. However, my practice in butoh dance and similar expressive performance arts, which evolved at the time when I was working on my MA-thesis for Innsbruck, made me realise the many similarities between this philosophy and the philosophies and methods of the Innsbruck School of Peace Studies.  Using art as a tool of research into human questions for academic purposes and a tool for conflict transformation triggered a curiosity in me of the potentials both on an individual level as a dancer as well as in the audience viewing the performance. In the MA programme in Innsbruck the theory of the many peaces and particularly the transrational peaces is a theoretical foundation for the programme. Transrationality, as described by Wolfgang Dietrich in the article “Beyond the gates of Eden: Transrational peaces” (2011), is a transgression of the limits of modernity and rationality, through a recombination of modern and so-called energetic elements. We could also describe this as a recombination of mind and spirit. Similar to the notion of transrationality, butoh is a concept that seeks to include the human experiences of having a physical body, spirit, emotions and intellect. It is impossible to grasp the concept of butoh with the mind alone because it goes beyond intellectual concepts. However, it is not merely building on pre-rational notions of being a body, it transcends it by allowing experiences from the collective and personal unconscious to come to the forefront and by also bringing a conscious awareness of spirit.

The focus on the unconscious and also the spirit is perhaps due to the origin of butoh as a Japanese dance style. It grew out of the death and devastation of WW II, particularly the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the need for a re-identification with a pre-war Japan. The repression of Japanese pre-modernity, stemming from the US occupation in combination with the war trauma resulted in a resurfacing of cultural elements that was often uncanny and grotesque. What attracted the first butoh dancers were the ways in which these modes of expression were marginalized and suppressed by modernising practices of the late 19th century following Shannon Moore’s book from 2003 “Ghosts of Pre-Modernity: Butoh and the Avant-Garde”. Butoh and similar avant-garde arts and performances helped to revive Japanese subjectivity and identity.

Capturing the unconscious world

There are two dancers that are considered to be the founders of butoh, Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno. Hijikata’s inspiration came from the retrieving of pre-modern elements of old myths and animist religion as well as an interest in the marginal classes that had been systematically suppressed during the 19th century period of modernisation and rationalisation in Japan. Hijikata and his contemporaries re-examined Japanese authenticity, and became critical voices in the face of modernity under the Americanisation. Influenced as he was by the French dramatist, Antonin Artaud, he wanted to create an expression where the inner eye would be operative, capturing an internal reality that resembled the unconscious world. Hijikata did not want a theatre that could be easily analysed  psychologically, that relentlessly attempted to reduce the unknown to the known. Instead Hijikata, inspired by Artaud and also Freud, aimed to reveal in his work the things that society kept buried. By attempting to dig up repressed memories, traumas and images of insanity, the goal was to liberate the ”darker side” as a move towards the integration of both ’high’ and ’low’, bringing society back into balance with nature. Butoh was therefore not developed as a technique, but rather as an exploration of body; of being. It also represented the body in a state of crisis, of ’becoming’, as referenced by Moore (2003).

An older dance colleague of Hijikata, Kazuo Ohno represents a different approach in butoh. Where Hijikata was inspired by the dark corners of our unconscious, the political taboos and the voices of the repressed, Ohno took the existence of spiritual presence as a starting point: “Form comes of itself, only insofar as there is a spiritual content to begin with” writes, Ohno, in the book “Kazuo Ohno’s world”, written by him and his son, published in 2004. Movement to Ohno was utterly dependant on one’s spiritual presence. In many ways these two dancers have come to represent what in butoh are darker and a lighter versions of butoh that coexist even today.

One common element with butoh is the insistence of showing spirit in the work. In today’s art world one is often suspicious when dancers introduce aspects such as soul and spirit on stage. It must at least be justified with a touch of apologetic cynicism and distance. Both Ohno and Hijikata, on the other hand,  were dedicated to an arts practice in service of something other than the ego. Butoh dance is unrelated to fixed choreographic movements and gives performers opportunities to become aware of what is going on inside them mentally and physically. Novel or strange movements are not rejected and so it appears that butoh contains full freedom. However, what is fascinating is that while the dancer may experience a full freedom of movement at first, she will soon find that it is the dancer herself that is the primary limitation in the dance. Every dancer  has his or her physical limitations as well as vulnerable minds that have undergone their unique personal and cultural histories. Every butoh performer is therefore naturally different and when they perform they inevitably expose their inner selves, their lives, their bodies and minds. For this reason, at least from my experience, the dance form has proven to be a very challenging life-long learning tool and a way of exploring our own uncharted interior territory. What we find though, is not specific just to our own stories, but are rather universal in their theme. This is, for me, the beauty in taking this dance to a stage, connecting the dance to the universal stories that an audience also can recognise within themselves.

Dance as research

For some time I have been interested in the relation between Peace Studies and the notion of consciousness and spirit. In almost all methods of reclaiming a sense of presence and beingness in the moment, there is a focus on the feeling of the body as a direct experience of the current moment or the ‘now’. We may think in terms of future and past, but when I experience the breath going into my lungs and the sensation of my feet touching the floor, I know that I AM in this moment. In  2013, when I took a two and a half month butoh course as fieldwork for my MA-thesis, I wanted to explore the technique and philosophy of butoh as an entry point into the vast territory of consciousness and the unconscious. The topic of my master thesis research became more and more centred on the connection between splits in our psyche or consciousness and the notion of transrationality. Butoh represented an incredibly deep philosophy and artistic expression for exploring inner dualities and the integration or transcendence of them.

Butoh means to meander, or to move as it were, in twists and turns between the realms of the living and the dead, the light and the dark

Kazuo Ohno


When I, together with five professional and semi-professional dancers started Butoh Laboratory, Oslo located in Norway, the idea was to build an arena for artistic research, inspired by methods of butoh- and performance work, relevant in a Norwegian context. For me the purpose has been twofold. I have wanted an arena for self-expression that went beyond the rational, academic frame. Furthermore, I have had the ambition of using findings in my academic writing, as a way of including non-rational ways of knowing. In and of itself, the idea of using butoh dance as a method of research in Peace studies and Depth psychology is a rather demanding and many would say an impossible task. One reason is that butoh dance to many is a dance style that can only be mastered by dancers growing up in the Japanese culture. Secondly, given the nature of butoh as a dance of transcendence and spirit, it seems contradictory to try to use this for once again to inform intellectual, academic work. However, if we take seriously this notion of transrational research, it is exactly the ambition to include both rational, transcendent/spiritual and physical experiences that could open new doors to knowledge creation in our field.

This connection between butoh and transrational- elicitive approaches to peace work was also emphasised by Wolfgang Dietrich in his book “Elicitive conflict transformation and the transrational shift in peace politics” (2013) claiming that butoh and similar expressive dances can be an interesting path to transformation. Building on these thoughts, I am curious as to how artistic expressions such as butoh performances can highlight hidden aspects of the unconscious and transform them.

“Butoh means to meander, or to move as it were, in twists and turns between the realms of the living and the dead, the light and the dark”, according to Ohno (2004: 205). This may sound like a morbid statement but this close affinity that you find with death in butoh has inspired a new way of approaching the elicitive approach to conflict transformation as well. To me the different layers in the elicitive approach also has this span between life and death. In fact, this notion of dark and light, death and life is nothing but mirroring us, human beings in our most honest form.